On July 25, 2017, the SEC’s Division of Enforcement issued a Report of Investigation (the “Report”) that concluded that the tokens issued in an initial coin offering (“ICO”) by a decentralized autonomous organization called “The DAO” were “securities” and that the ICO itself should either have been registered with the SEC under the Securities Act of 1933 or qualified for an exemption therefrom. Importantly, the Report does not conclude that all ICO tokens are securities or that ICOs must either be registered or satisfy the requirements for an exemption from registration. The Report provides important guidance, however, to blockchain startups and other entities seeking to raise capital in the United States through ICOs as to how to structure those offerings from a regulatory standpoint.
Initial Coin Offerings
An initial coin offering is a crowdfunding technique used primarily by blockchain startups in which the issuer sells cryptocurrency tokens or coins that entitle the purchaser to certain rights ranging from access to the issuer’s product or service once it is available (similar to pre-order based non-equity crowdfunding on sites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo) to a share in the issuer’s profits (similar to equity based crowdfunding). Purchasers also typically have the right to resell their tokens on an online exchange. Purchasers make their contributions in the form of either fiat currency (e.g., U.S. dollars) or, more typically, virtual currency (e.g., bitcoin or ether). The offering and sale of the tokens are made directly to the public using blockchain technology to bypass conventional capital markets intermediaries and regulatory regimes. Advertising and information releases occur on the issuer’s website and on online forums such as Bitcointalk and Reddit.
Looming over the emerging ICO industry is the issue of whether ICOs are offerings of securities. Some issuers have chosen not to take the risk of offering and selling unregistered securities in the United States and have instead offered and sold ICO tokens only to non-U.S. persons. Among the most popular non-U.S. markets are Singapore, one of the first jurisdictions to adopt a regulatory sandbox and other regulatory relief initiatives for fintech companies, and Switzerland, whose “Crypto Valley” is a major center of blockchain startups. Other issuers in the U.S. have attempted to steer clear of possible regulation by limiting rights of token holders to access to products or services upon availability.
The DAO Initial Coin Offering
The DAO was a virtual entity referred to as a decentralized autonomous organization (i.e., not a corporation, LLC or other legal entity) formed to sell virtual tokens to raise capital for future projects, a variation on an investment fund. DAO token holders would have the right to share in the earnings from the projects and could otherwise monetize their investments in DAO tokens by reselling them in online platforms serving as secondary markets. The idea behind this virtual organization was to replace traditional corporate governance and decision making with smart contract coding on a blockchain. But in addition to the automated governance structure, the DAO did have a human component as well in the form of “curators” who maintained ultimate control over which proposals would be submitted to and voted on by token holders and then funded by the DAO. A majority vote of the DAO token holders was required for a project to be funded.
The SEC’s Analysis
Section 5 of the Securities Act requires that every offer and sale of securities in the United States either be registered with the SEC or satisfy the requirements of an exemption from registration. But are ICO tokens securities? Under Section 2(a)(1) of the Securities Act, a security includes an “investment contract”, which was determined in the seminal case of SEC v. W.J. Howey Co. to mean an investment of money in a common enterprise with a reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others. In determining whether an investment contract exists, the investment of “money” need not take the form of cash. Investors in the DAO used ETH to make their investments. The Report makes clear that such investment is the type of contribution of value that can create an investment contract under Howey.
The Report then found that investors who purchased DAO tokens were investing in a common enterprise and reasonably expected to earn profits through that enterprise when they contributed ETH to the DAO in exchange for DAO tokens. The DAO’s various promotional materials informed investors that the DAO was a for-profit entity whose objective was to fund projects in exchange for a return on investment. The Report also found that investors expected profits to be derived from the managerial efforts of others—specifically, the DAO’s founders and curators. Because the investors did have an ostensible management role – voting on proposed projects — the central issue was whether the efforts of “others” were undeniably significant and essential to the failure or success of the enterprise. In this regard, the Report found that the DAO’s investors relied on the managerial and entrepreneurial efforts of the founders and the DAO’s curators to manage the DAO and put forth project proposals that could generate profits for the investors. The founders of the DAO also held themselves out to investors as experts in Ethereum, the blockchain protocol on which the DAO operated, and told investors that they had selected persons to serve as curators based on their expertise and credentials. Although DAO token holders were afforded voting rights, the SEC determined that such rights did not provide the holders with meaningful control over the enterprise because (1) their ability to vote for contracts was largely “perfunctory” (they could only vote on proposals that had been cleared by the curators); and (2) their pseudonymity and dispersion made it difficult for them to communicate or join together to effect change or exercise meaningful control.
A second major issue weighing on the ICO industry has been whether the online platforms on which ICO tokens are traded need to be registered under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 as national securities exchanges. Section 3(a)(1) of the Exchange Act defines an “exchange” as any group or entity that “provides a marketplace or facilities for bringing together purchasers and sellers of securities or for otherwise performing with respect to securities the functions commonly performed by a stock exchange…”. Under Exchange Act Rule 3b-16(a), a trading system meets the definition of “exchange” under Section 3(a)(1) if the platform “(1) brings together the orders for securities of multiple buyers and sellers; and (2) uses established, non-discretionary methods (whether by providing a trading facility or by setting rules) under which such orders interact with each other, and the buyers and sellers entering such orders agree to the terms of the trade”. Alternatively, a platform could operate as an alternative trading system exempted from the definition of “exchange” if it registers as a broker-dealer, files a Form ATS with the SEC to provide notice of its operations and complies with the other requirements of Regulation ATS. The Report concluded that the platforms on which the DAO tokens were traded were exchanges under the foregoing Rule 3b-16(a) criteria, and thus should have been registered, because they provided users with an electronic system that matched orders from multiple parties to buy and sell DAO tokens for execution based on non-discretionary methods.
It’s unclear why the SEC determined to issue an investigative report rather than pursue an enforcement action against the DAO, its promoters and the exchanges on which the ICO tokens were traded. The underlying conclusions, however, are not surprising. Virtual currencies such as bitcoin and ether are “value” and ICOs in which purchasers have a reasonable expectation of profit through the efforts of the issuer’s promoters are securities offerings which must either be registered or qualify for an exemption. Giving investors “perfunctory” voting rights on proposals presented by promoters’ agents will not be enough to overcome a presumption that the investors expect a profit through the efforts of others. It’s worth noting that the SEC did not address ICOs of so called “access tokens” in which purchasers are given only a right to future products or services but no opportunity for profit. Such ICOs would need to be structured very carefully to ensure that contributors have no “reasonable expectation of profit”, and it’s unclear whether as a practical matter issuers will be able to raise significant amounts without offering a profit incentive. Finally, the Report puts ICO platforms on notice that electronic systems that match orders from multiple parties to buy and sell tokens based on non-discretionary methods must register either as a national securities exchange or as a broker dealer under Regulation ATS.